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Can Introverts Be Great Entrepreneurs?

Conventional wisdom suggests you must be bold and outgoing to be successful. Here's why the stereotype doesn't hold up.
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Stereotypes can be devastating, especially when you apply them to yourself. One of the most persistent within entrepreneurship is that founders must be true extroverts: gregarious, outgoing, and always ready to press the flesh. If the image of glad-handing your way through a crowd sets your teeth on edge, you might assume that running a business is not for you.

If so, put that thought out of your mind. According to Sophia Dembling, author of The Introvert's Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World, introverts not only can be effective in business, but they also have traits that support good leadership. The important thing is to understand how to make your psychology work for what you want.

What is an introvert, really?

The first step is to realize that shyness and introversion are not the same. "As one researcher explained it to me, shyness is a behavior in reaction to conditions, and introversion is a motivation," Dembling says. Natural extroverts can actually be shy. Whether introvert or extrovert, it's important to know that shyness can be overcome. "Introversion is hardwired, and there is no reason to want to overcome it," she says.

As Dembling describes it, introverts lose energy from being around people and gain energy from being alone, while extroverts are the opposite. "It's simply a different way of functioning in the world and no better or worse than extroversion, although we've all been told that extroversion is better," she says.

How to work with what you are

When you know how you best function, you can come up with tactics to take advantage of your inclinations. For example, if you must be at a conference and interact with many people, be sure to keep evenings free for some downtime by yourself. "Maybe you don't want to go to group events where you're trying to throw elevator pitches out," Dembling says. "Maybe you need to schedule one-on-one meetings." The entrepreneur might also look for odd moments to recharge during the day, whether taking a walk around the block or lunch by yourself.

Interestingly, public speaking may be fine if you can work from a prepared script or presentation and not improvise. "It's really recognizing where your strengths are and where your weaknesses are and not judging them," she says.

Key decisions to consider

Being introverted will also affect strategic choices of how to structure your business. For example, an introverted business owner or executive might choose to lead a team of extroverts. "Your abilities to listen and process information are real strengths," Dembling says. "You might need to listen, step back, think about it, and come back to them" and avoid being steamrolled by the team members. An extrovert might run into conflicts, competing with extroverted team members, and be better off with a largely introverted team.

An introspective entrepreneur might favor a smaller business run out of a home office, with significant amounts of private time, rather than a larger undertaking. Although it is possible to fall into the trap of isolating yourself too much.

Because of the confusion with shyness or its opposite--boldness--you might want to get a better sense of where you fall on the continuum between introversion and extroversion. Tests like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator can provide an inexact approach to understanding where you might stand.

Last updated: Nov 29, 2012

ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist

Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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